HBO’s ensemble drama, created by David Simon (who previously gave HBO The Wire) and set in post-Katrina New Orleans, received accolades but was overlooked in the Emmys and struggled for viewers over its first three seasons. So the network gave Simon a short fourth season to wrap up the stories of his characters in a brief five episodes and he does so with the same focus on community and culture and the richness of New Orleans music that made the show one of cable’s finest dramas.
It opens in 2008, with the election of President Barack Obama and surge of hope for things to improve, and the season finds many of its characters taking the next step in their lives. Wendell Pierce’s Antoine Batiste discovers, much to his amazement, that he cares deeply about the lives and well-being of his music students beyond their musical talents. Chef Jeanette Desautel (Kim Dickens) parts ways with her former restaurant partner to open her own place and finds herself fighting to use her own name, due to a clause in her partnership contrast. Fiddler and singer Annie (Lucia Micarelli) takes a leap into the national music scene and struggles to hold on to her musical identity as her manager commercializes her sound. Melissa Leo’s bulldog of an attorney Toni Bernette continues to press her case against the NOPD and Detective Terry Colson defies the department to help her. And so many other stories play out in these final episodes—the most poignant revolving around Albert Lambreaux, (Clarke Peters), the stubborn Big Chief determined to preserve the Mardi Gras traditions of old, as he faces his own mortality when his cancer returns—without losing the pace of life and the rich culture that defines the show or the complexities and contradictions of the characters themselves. (What other show would make one of the out-of-state contractors who hustles his way into the big money pouring into reconstruction would cast Jon Seda and make him into such a likable guy?) It’s a show of politics and music and culture, but ultimately it’s about people trying to preserve what matters most to them.
Five episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on two episodes.
HBO also releases the entire series in a box set on Blu-ray: 36 episodes on 14 discs in four cases. This is a series worth keeping and revisiting. It never found the critical cache or the intense devotion that made David Simon’s The Wire such a landmark, perhaps because these stories didn’t revolve around the volatile lives of cops and drug dealers and street kids trying to survive it all, but these stories are no less profound or moving and the culture that Simon and his collaborators (co-creator Eric Overmyer and writer David Mills, both veterans of Simon’s Homicide and The Wire, and novelist George Pelicanos and food writer Anthony Bourdain are part of the writing team) present on screen is richer and denser and more complex than anything I’ve seen on a fictional TV series. And when you pull it all together, you see a subtle but resonant closure that, as in The Wire, ties the series finale back to the first episode, both here directed by the great Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland: “Do You Know What it Means” and “… To Miss New Orleans.”
David Simon and various members of the cast and crew contribute commentary to over half of the episodes of the series and there is music commentary on each episode of the first three seasons, plus all the previously released featurettes and other supplements. This set also includes an exclusive bonus disc with 15 music videos.
Downton Abbey: Season 4 (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD) opens six months after (*season 3 spoiler alert*) the death of Matthew Crawley, husband of Mary (Michelle Dockery) and heir to the Downton estate, with the house still in mourning and paternal patriarch Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), determined to take charge in the name of Mary’s infant son, heir to the Matthew’s share of the estate.
Creator / writer Julian Fellowes uses the turn of events to discuss such antiquated laws of inheritance in 20th century England, albeit with dignified restraint, just as it series gingerly addresses chauvinism, rape, and prejudice, the latter as the fun-loving young cousin Rose (Lily James) secretly dates a black American jazz singer. Mary blossoms in her new role as a manager of the estate (much to the frustration of her father) while courted by two suitors and, in proper Upstairs, Downstairs fashion, the servants deal with their own dramas and romantic tribulations, with lives spilling over the social division. Opera legend Kiri Te Kanawa guest stars in an early episode. The extended season finale “The London Season” brings the characters to London for Rose to be presented to the king and queen and features guest stars Shirley MacLaine (as Cora’s brash American mother) and Paul Giamatti (as her playboy brother Harold) who arrive in London for the occasion as well as an unexpected subplot that turns into a little heist drama with stalwart support from the loyal and reliable Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle).
The mix of wistful idealization of this world of privilege and ritual and wily critique of the aristocracy who embrace privilege as their duty and their right is so smooth it’s hard to separate one from the other, and the way the veteran servants are just as invested in the social hierarchy (which includes with a rigid hierarchy in their own ranks) adds to the ambivalence of the portrait. But as likable as our privileged family members may be, Fellowes keeps reminding us that they are dinosaurs leftover from an earlier age, able to survive only if they evolve.
It arrives on Blu-ray and DVD while the season still plays out on PBS, a cagey move to appeal to die-hard fans who can’t wait for the weekly installments. Eight episodes plus three behind-the-scenes featurettes.
Bonnie & Clyde (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD), the mini-series that premiered on three different cable channels (A&E, History, and Lifetime) in 2012, opens on the aftermath of depression-era outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, dead from a hail of gunfire, and then rewinds to their beginnings with Clyde (Emile Hirsch) narrating from the grave. Clyde is the restless juvenile delinquent and Bonnie (Holliday Grainger) small-town beauty abandoned by a shifty husband and swept off her feet by the young outlaw.
While this production explores details left out of the famous 1967 film with Warren Beattie and Faye Dunaway and features actors much closer to the real ages of the real outlaws, who had yet to turn 24 when they were killed, it spins its own, dubious take on their motivations and relationship. This version takes its cue from the cult film noir Gun Crazy, with Clyde appalled when someone gets killed in their heists (in reality, he killed his first man before the crime wave even began) and Bonnie as the bloodthirsty instigator of their violent spree, getting off on every killing like little kid playing a game. This specious psychological portrait makes their death a double suicide planned by Clyde to end their reign violence, which makes just another depression-era fairy tale of real-life criminals. Sarah Hyland, Holly Hunter and William Hurt co-star. Blu-ray and DVD, with three light featurettes (the Blu-ray features an exclusive fourth featurette).
NYPD Blue: Season 5 (Shout Factory, DVD) is the first new season of the defining police drama of the 1990s to arrive on disc in eight years. The season opens with Detective Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) on suspension and suspicious that his partner, Detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), was somehow involved in the murder that put him in IA’s sights. There is palpable tension even after this crime is cleared up but their partnership continues to strengthen and Simone’s romance with Detective Diane Russell (Kim Delaney) finally leads to marriage in the season finale. It’s the final full season for Smits and for Sharon Lawrence, whose A.D.A. Sylvia Costas married Sipowicz in the second season. Nicholas Turturro, Gordon Clapp (who won an Emmy for his performance), and Andrea Thompson fill out the squad and James McDaniel is in command. This season also features a dramatic two-part episode revolving around child abuse and murder that earned Emmy awards for writing and directing. The show is no longer as edgy as it appeared in its initial run but it really hasn’t aged much and the aggressive use of handheld camerawork is so much more restrained than many of the American indie dramas made today. 22 episodes on five discs, no supplements.
The debut seasons of more new shows arrive. Crossing Lines: Season One (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD), an international procedural about a multinational team investigating crimes that sprawl across national borders, stars Americans William Fichtner and Donald Sutherland with drawn from all over Europe. The English-language production played stateside as a summer network show but, despite solid production values and great locations, spread the drama too thin through the cast and failed to ignite in the U.S. 10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD.
Comedy Bang! Bang!: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, DVD) is the surreal IFC talk show hosted by Scott Aukerman and featuring Reggie Watts as the one-man studio music machine. Guests this season include Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Jon Hamm, Seth Rogen, and Amy Pohler. 10 episodes on DVD, with commentary, deleted scenes, alternate interviews, and other supplements.
Also from IFC is the dark satire Bullet in the Face: The Complete Series (Shout Factory, DVD), about a sociopath (Max E. Williams) with face transplant and a cop’s badge who has an identity crisis and takes his revenge on the entire human race. From the creator of Sledgehammer and co-starring Eddie Izzard and Eric Roberts. Six episodes on DVD.
Vintage British crime comes from the inexhaustible well of Agatha Christie in Agatha Christie’s The Queen of Crime Collection (Acorn, DVD), which features the telefilms “Sparkling Cyanide” (2003), “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?” (1980) and “Seven Dials Mystery” (1981) on three discs, and the 1982 series The Agatha Christie Hour: Complete Collection (Acorn, DVD), with ten episodes (all previously released) on four discs.
And don’t forget Borgen: Season 3 (MHz, DVD), the Danish political drama that has become a hit across Europe and a cult series in the U.S. in the few markets where it plays on PBS stations.
Dolmen: The Complete Series (MHz, DVD)
Sebastien Bergman: Volume 1 (MHz, DVD)
Pinky, Elmira & the Brain: The Complete Series (Warner, DVD)
Danny Phantom: The Complete Series (Shout Factory, DVD)
Vera: Set 3 (Acorn, DVD)
African-American Leaders: Past & Present (History Channel, DVD)
The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross (PBS, DVD)
Lincoln@Gettysburg (PBS, DVD)
The State Of Arizona (PBS, DVD)
Snow Babies (BBC, DVD)
Penguins: Spy in the Huddle (BBC, DVD)
The Universe in 3D: A Whole New Dimension (Lionsgate, Blu-ray 3D)
Counting Cars: Season 2, Volume 2 (History Channel, DVD)
Touchdown Charlie Brown (Warner, DVD)